A victorious smile shot across Briana Bicy’s face as she attached a French hook onto a pair of dangling graffiti earrings for the first time at the Rebel Nell jewelry workshop in Detroit’s creative corridor.
She had reasons to be pleased. After all, she had just escaped domestic violence, and left COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter) for a place of her own. Now, she was working for a nationally known jewelry company and fulfilling a dream to become a jewelry designer.
“I feel like I’m fresh out of jail,” she said. “The whole experience of working with this company is going to be mind-blowing and changing. I talked to other ladies; they learned so much about themselves and what they can do here. I’m hoping to get that same experience and even more.”
Amy Peterson, founder of Rebel Nell, had been searching for a way to employ and empower homeless women like Bicy at the COTS. She conversed with many women on the way to and from her apartment next door, and learned most had escaped some form of abuse and needed help.
A light switched on one day during a run more than four years ago when Peterson noticed pieces of graffiti that had fallen off a mural. She gathered fragments, took some home and experimented with a process to access the layers of beautiful, intricate colors underneath. After four months of prototyping an innovative process, she formed the company with her partner, Diana Russell, and began setting the gemstone-like pieces in sterling silver and hiring workers from the shelter.
Today, Rebel Nell is a booming business that has earned acclaim for its unique, one-of-a-kind earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and other items made from creatively cut, colorful graffiti pieces. It’s sold in several retail outlets such as the Detroit Institute of Arts museum shop and online at rebelnell.com.
“In Detroit, graffiti is an abundant, local resource,” she said. “People paint or tag the same wall over and over, and it eventually flakes off and falls on the ground with five and 10 layers. We take it through a process, exposing the layers and giving it a kaleidoscopic effect.”
The women in the workshop have complete creative freedom to cut out whatever shapes and color patterns speak to them, Peterson said, and they make each piece special.
After Peterson and her team select women for the program, they are trained and paid to craft jewelry. During the process, they work a flexible schedule; receive housing assistance, financial education, wellness classes, and support navigating life’s challenges.
“The whole goal of Rebel Nell is really to provide a stabilization point,” Peterson said. “I want the women to come in and get their life in order. They are transitioned out of the shelter, have a handle on their finances and each one has a budget, which we help monitor to ensure they get closer to their goals.”
The women also receive support to start new careers and businesses. By the time they graduate—one or two at a time—the women take flight making way for a new class. The program is not designed to be a permanent position for the four to six women, unless she’s a standout out like Patricia Caldwell with her work ethic, Peterson said.
Caldwell’s a glowing example of how one can thrive given an opportunity. When she came to Rebel Nell in late 2013, Caldwell lived in the shelter, having recently escaped an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship, and had regained custody of her two teenaged children.
She desperately searched for work, but wasn’t successful until a stranger noticed her stylish jewelry and secretly recommended her for a position.
Caldwell started by refining graffiti edges with a machine, and cutting different shapes, sizes and colors. Eventually, she began assembling jewelry, and advanced to quality control supervisor. Now, she’s production manager, training employees and ensuring a consistent product.
The company was a makeshift operation in its infancy when she started, and she was angry and discombobulated. Today, both she and the company have come a long way.
“I’ve never heard of such an opportunity in my life,” she said. “I don’t know if there are other jobs that offer these types of amenities. When I learned about Rebel Nell, it couldn’t have come at a better time. It was like a dream.’’
She explains that she was like every woman living at COTS who needed help moving forward.
“This is the best job a company can offer,” she said. “This is like a family that takes you in and helps you start developing the things that are on the inside of you. They help you with financial barriers, family issues, whatever you need. What Amy Peterson is offering to underserved women is the most a company can ever offer you.”
Had it not been for Rebel Nell, Caldwell imagines she would have been working in a factory, her creativity stifled. “I believe I would be trying to forge my way into the industry. I don’t know how I would be doing that, and I probably would be messing it all up because I was so angry.”
She praises Peterson and Russell for the opportunity they afford her and other women, who go scavenging for graffiti in the spring and fall when new works have been painted on buildings around Detroit. Rebel Nell, named in homage to the fierce Eleanor Roosevelt, also partners with the Alley Project in southwest Detroit, where neighbors have agreed to allow artists to paint murals on their garage doors.
“I appreciate it very much,” said Caldwell, who designs bedazzled cuffs handcrafted from leather and denim and plans to start her own company. “I didn’t have to be in COTS. I didn’t have to be recognized by the person—I still don’t know who that person is who noticed me in passing. I don’t take it for granted. What I do understand is that my gifts, my integrity and everything I bring to Rebel Nell will always carry me along the way.”
Peterson said Caldwell is a testament to the bountiful naysayers she encountered whenever she shared her vision to start a social enterprise employing homeless women. It couldn’t be done, they said; it would be too hard.
Peterson acknowledges the enterprise is challenging, but it’s been extremely rewarding. One reward is inclusion in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s third exhibition in a series called “By the People: Designing a Better America.” The works will be displayed in the New York City exhibit through February 26, 2017.
However, it’s not easy juggling a company, being a wife, new mother and an attorney. It’s especially gratifying to watch the women grow, which is rarely linear. Like most people, they sometimes falter, but eventually flourish after getting an apartment within the first 45 days of employment, a commitment she makes to the women.
“We find that so many of them are grateful for that respect and opportunity, they often work harder,” Peterson said. “My goal is not to have a ton of jewelry makers; my goal is to teach them how they can be the best women they can be.”
Bicy wants that, too.
“This is not about the jewelry,” she said. “It’s about the total experience.”